Forests of Christmas-ready pine trees, quaint rural villages, throwback passenger trains and millions of twinkling lights — no part of the state celebrates the holidays quite like East Texas.
The bedazzled display of lights in Marshall might be the best-known, but the whole Piney Woods region is stuffed full of old-fashioned holiday cheer, all of it family-friendly and most of it easy on the budget.
For an easy day trip or a quick weekend getaway, pick one (or more) of our favorite destinations; we guarantee you’ll be humming Christmas carols, craving candy canes and envisioning sugarplums on the drive home.
Wonderland of Lights Festival, Marshall
Marshall native Wendy Russell Reves, then living in France, saw the editorial and, unbidden, sent a $25,000 check. Townspeople raised thousands more dollars and worked tirelessly to hang the lights and craft homemade decorations. The Wonderland of Lights was born in time for Christmas, 1987.
Over the years, the displays got bigger and glitzier, with more buildings and private homes joining the fun. (Now, a crew of 10 workers starts stringing lights in October.) But a few years ago, Michel says, planners, realizing “you can only put so many lights on a building,” started adding more entertainment, like an open-air ice skating rink and live music.
Right afterward, there’s a music show in Telegraph Park across the street from the courthouse, then a second, shorter show nearby. Most visitors simply drive their own car and chart their own course through the lighted displays, but it’s more fun to take a tour in a horse-drawn carriage or, even better, aboard an English double-decker bus.
Yesterland Farms, Canton
Instead, make a day out of it: Take a hay ride through the woods, zip down the giant slide, climb the rock wall, let the kids enjoy a pony ride or plop onto Santa’s lap. You can bring your own picnic to the free picnic area, or load up on fair fare like corny dogs, kettle corn and funnel cakes.
You can even reserve a campfire site — for $50, the farm staff builds your fire and cleans it up; you just bring the hot dogs and s’mores fixings.
Santa Land, Lindale
This being Texas, of course, it soon grew into something bigger than life. There are now more than 25 themed areas and attractions, including 12-foot-tall soldiers, a giant cowboy boot, Santa’s village, a Christmas tree forest, and a glittering 250-foot-long “tunnel” of thousands of lights. The park is now a full-time concern for the Palmers: They finish taking down all the lights in February each year, only to start re-hanging them in May to be ready for the annual Nov. 1 opening date.
“The Polar Express” Train Ride, Palestine
Plan your trip: Board the train at the Palestine station; kids are encouraged to wear their jammies, and often entire families show up in matching nightclothes, Gregg says. As the train pulls away, the story begins, with many families following the narration in their own storybooks. (Can’t quite place that narrator’s familiar voice? It’s actor Liam Neeson.) After waiters serve cookies and hot cocoa, the train emerges from the woods into the winter wonderland of the North Pole, complete with Santa and dancing elves. Santa even boards the train to give each child his or her own souvenir silver bell — just like in the movie.
Kilgore Rangerette Christmas show, Kilgore